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Jamie Pottern: Supporting farmers is vital to securing a resilient future in the Berkshires

A view of the red barn at Green River Farms (copy)

A view from Route 7 of the former Green River Farms in Williamstown.

On a warm spring evening, North County farmers pulled themselves away from their tractors, greenhouses and fields and gathered at Williamstown’s First Congregational Church. Filling their plates with a spread of local food, they sat at tables to listen to an array of speakers about what might be considered a less-than-captivating (and even nerve-wracking) subject: planning for the future of their farms.

How do you divide a farm equitably among multiple heirs when only one of them wants to farm it? What does retirement mean for a farmer? What is the best strategy for reducing estate taxes when passing on farmland? How do you find someone to take over the farm? How do you make sure your farm will always remain a farm?

These are just some of the questions that came up at the region’s first “Planning for the Future of Your Farmland” workshop, organized by the Williamstown Agricultural Commission, American Farmland Trust and Land for Good. The workshop brought together around 35 farmers, farmland owners and local agricultural support practitioners to share information about conservation options, farm succession planning, financial and estate planning, and making land available for the next generation of farmers.

Berkshire County has a rich history of agriculture and today supports a huge diversity of farms — from large, multi-generational dairy farms to small, urban vegetable operations, and everything in between.

Given the prevalence of working farms, farmers markets, farm stands and farm-focused events, it might be easy to assume that local farms and farmers will always be here. But the data tells a different story.

According to a report by American Farmland Trust, about 82 percent of Berkshire County’s farmland remains unprotected — meaning it’s not subject to a permanent conservation restriction that would limit future development. In 1950, Williamstown was home to about 50 farms; today, a dozen farms remain. At the same time, the region faces rapidly rising land and housing values. Between 2020 and 2021 alone, Massachusetts saw its farmland values rise 21 percent per acre — faster than any other state in the country.

“Family farms in Williamstown, and throughout the Berkshires, are squeezed from all angles. We are seeing farmland prices getting rapidly driven up, well above what farmers — especially aspiring new farmers — can afford. Investors are literally knocking on farmers’ doors,” Williamstown Agricultural Commission Chair Sarah Gardner said. “This is a problem that definitely will not be solved by the invisible hand of the free market; land trusts and local organizations and public investment money are essential.”

Minding the ‘transition gap’

On top of this, there’s what we call the “farm transition gap.” Thirty-five percent of the county’s farmers are over the age of 65, while less than 8 percent are under the age of 35 — a ratio of 5-to-1. Around half of the county’s farms reported in the 2017 census of agriculture that they had not yet undertaken any estate planning or farm succession planning — meaning that without support to these farms, significant acreage could transition out of agriculture in the coming years, including leased and rented farmland.

It’s more important than ever for farmers and farmland owners to have access to every possible tool and resource to improve the viability of their farms, to plan for thoughtful transitions of their farms and businesses to the next generation of farmers (to bridge the “transition gap”), and to consider conservation options that can keep their land in agriculture forever.

Knowing who to call and finding the right resources can be tricky and daunting for farmers. Workshops like these are designed to help farmers navigate how to take that next step, to get questions answered and feel supported.

No farms (and no farmers) means no food. Given an increasingly uncertain future, it’s more important than ever to protect the farmland that remains and support hard-working farmers so that they can continue to produce healthy food for our communities.

The good news? Long-standing committed organizations are here to help.

To learn more about organizations that can help with land conservation, land access, financial planning and estate planning, and to sign up for updates, visit farmland.org/berkshire-farm-futures.

Jamie Pottern is American Farmland Trust’s New England program manager.

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